The Kilroys Were Here
Moving Female Playwrights into Production
On June 11, 2014, The Kilroys, an independent Los Angeles-based advocacy group of female playwrights and producers, released THE LIST, the results of the first annual industry survey of excellent new plays by female-identified playwrights nominated by 127 industry representatives. THE LIST is intended as a tool for producers committed to ending the systemic underrepresentation of female voices in the American theatre. A few days ago, I had a chance to sit down with four of the Kilroys—Joy Meads, Carla Ching, Annah Feinberg, and Kelly Miller—to talk about how THE LIST was generated and responses since it was released.
P. Carl: I’d love for you guys to speculate as to why we have a parity problem in 2014. Any theories?
Joy Meads: I can start by saying I know the reason is not because we’ve got shadowy smoke-filled rooms full of avowed misogynists who are harboring conscious enmity towards women. That’s not what’s happening. That was what was happening in the past, way back when, but not now. I think what’s happening is that we have a lot of systemic, institutional and unconscious bias. All of these reasons that have converged to make it feel quote unquote riskier for one reason or another for a theatre to produce a play by a woman. With unconscious bias, the way our minds work, our expectations and assumptions are shaped by our experiences, and that’s just something going in. So when you’ve had a lifetime of reading and seeing quote unquote successful plays that come from a male perspective and are male-centered, that influences the way you perceive what will be successful, unless you are very conscious about identifying and being aware of that bias. I think that’s one thing. I think everyone wants to produce equitably. No one wants to consciously prop up men and keep women down, but I think there are all of these forces that we haven’t yet been able to talk about because the conversation has been stuck in this loop of “oh, the plays aren’t there,” which they are. Part of what we want to do is we want to just move the conversation forward from that place. We want to take “the plays aren’t there” or “we couldn’t find any good plays by women”—we want to take that off the table as a talking point.
I think what’s happening is that we have a lot of systemic, institutional and unconscious bias.
Annah Feinberg: I think there’s also kind of a hangover from the era of shadowy misogynists in smoke-filled rooms that used to be conscious but has become unconscious in that, we hire people and we are drawn to stories in which there are people like us, and there’s still a problem of male leadership in the American theatre, so it’s kind of all coming from the top. If I’m running an institution, and I’m a straight white man, I’m going to be drawn to stories that center around straight white men, whether I realize it or not.
Carla Ching: If I could tell a quick anecdote about that—I have been pitched as writing like a man, and that being a positive thing. My agent has pitched me that way because she thinks it’s going to get me more work. That belies the bias about what writing by women looks like.
Carl: Any guesses as to what the distinction is there, Carla?
Carla: She’s used the words that my writing is very muscular and I write unsentimentally. I was taken aback that that’s how she feels like she needs to pitch me in order to get me out there, that she thinks that people will respond to that.
Joy: To add on to what Carla’s saying, I think that women and men both write in all kinds of different ways. But I think that women sometimes face an extra stigma when they write plays that are quieter in tone, more focused on relationships and the subtleties of every day life. In the realm of literary fiction when women novelists talk about this experience of writing stories that center on every day life and relationships but that reach that larger theme, they’re pitched as domestic stories, as women’s fiction, quote unquote. When a male author writes a similar type of book, one of the biggest examples to date was Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom; it’s pitched as something that’s relevant to everyone, that says important things about the time we live in now.
Carl: What made you think that this intervention of a curated list would be the way to have the most impact? And part two of this question is did you imagine THE LIST would have this kind of effect?
Annah: To us, it was just a simple answer. We had been talking a lot about the response that we had heard from artistic directors about how either a) the work didn’t exist. Plays of quality by women did not exist. Or b) they didn’t have access to them. This was an action on our part to just answer that concern, yes, they’re right here.
Joy: I want to speak to the curated aspect of it. I’ve been working in the professional theatre for about ten years, and during that time I have consistently heard artistic directors when asked why they don’t have more women in their season say, “we just choose the best plays.” I know this isn’t intended, but the logical analog to that, the next unsaid sentence is “and the best plays are written by men.” I know from ten plus years of reading, a lifetime of reading plays, I know for a fact that isn’t true. First of all, we wanted to do something that was distinctive from other efforts, that were marching along side and building on the shoulders of other efforts. There have been fantastic lists that have just proved the breadth and the exciting depth and variety and range of the talented female writers working today. For example, the We Exist list, that is a stunning accomplishment. You just look at that list, and you know there is no shortage of writers writing. Our list is complimentary in that we were just hoping to produce something for those artistic directors to answer the quote unquote quality question in language that they would recommend. There are a huge number of high quality plays by women available to you to choose from. In the future, we have a place on our site for people to nominate themselves as recommenders, or nominate others as recommenders. This first year was a very grassroots initiative, and we were just reaching out to folks that we knew were reading a lot of plays. In the future I really think we’re going to have a broader range of voters. But for this first year, it was very important to us that we just take that quality argument off the table. It’s not just that there are a lot of writers working—there are. It’s also that there are a lot of writers working that people who I know you know and recognize the expertise of—these people are validating the quality of the work.
I have consistently heard artistic directors when asked why they don’t have more women in their season say, 'we just choose the best plays.' [...] the next unsaid sentence is 'and the best plays are written by men.'
Kelly Miller: I actually want to speak a little more to the curatorial nature of this first year. To us, we did take a big page of inspiration from the Blacklist in Hollywood. The idea that part of what generates the power of that list is quite literally the quality of the plays and the writers involved. We didn’t curate the list of plays themselves or the writers—we curated the people who were nominating the work. We emailed 250 industry professionals and 127 responded for this first inaugural list. It’s really important to us that people know that it was about really making this huge grassroots effort to get an industry-wide response, or as big a response we could the first year out. Quite literally THE LIST is an actionable, active advocacy on behalf of the entire industry, or as many new plays tastemakers and leaders and advocates as we could involve.
Carl: I’ve seen in my Facebook feed around that issue of curation—some people saying that this is another form of exclusion. In an effort to be inclusive, it’s exclusive. I wonder how you respond to that, because I can imagine waking up to THE LIST and being a struggling woman playwright and not seeing your name there, and feeling like it was a loss rather than a gain.
Annah: One of the things we’ve talked about a lot in this group is that—whatever the expression is—the rising tide raises all ships? We really believe that; by shining light on all these amazing plays by women, all amazing plays by women will gain a higher status.
Carla: Our intention is to help move everybody forward and to help open the door for everybody so there is more opportunity for women writers. It thoroughly dismays us that people may feel excluded, because that is absolutely not the point. It may very well be that those folks are on the list next year. It’s about timing and the time that we happened to ask for the recommendations. It’s when these particular plays floated to the lips of the people that we asked. There’s a good chance that all these other folks’ plays will be read between now and then. They should absolutely get their plays in the hands of people that are making plays across the country. I’m not on the list. There are a bunch of other Kilroys that aren’t on the list either.
Joy: Part of what we are really hoping is that people will look at this as the first year of what is a multi-year process. Part of it is who has plays that are out there right now that have been read right when the request went around, so they were fresh in people’s minds. Who has plays that are being read widely—how can we broaden the list of nominators in the second year, once we’ve get beyond this very grassroots initial push? I think over time this is going to be an incredibly exciting demonstration of the depth of talent in our field. One other point I’ll make is that one of the inspirations and heartbreaks of this advocacy is that there are so many incredibly gifted writers—female writers, female and gender queer writers—who are writing today. A list that would really be truly inclusive and include every under-produced play by a female or gender queer artist that deserves production would be massive—pages and pages—it would crash our website. It’s heartbreaking that’s a fact, but we’re also interested in how can we capture attention with the list? How much information can people process? It’s part of why we divided THE LIST into two different chunks: the 46 most-nominated female-authored plays and the complete list, which is 300 titles. There’s something that happens sometimes when you see a very long list—you get the force of the list, but you’re not really able to take action on individual components, because it becomes overwhelming. We’re thinking of this as a long-term project. You’re going to see the range, diversity, and depth of our field of talent represented on this list. There’s a link on our page to nominate yourself or somebody else as recommender. We want this to be as inclusive as possible. We started out focused, but we want it to grow.
Carl: Do you feel like you’re dealing with a particular kind of play here? I keep thinking about all the ensembles that are devising work who are probably a mix of genders, so I just wonder if you feel like the list represents a particular kind of play, or if you feel like it represents the breadth of the kind of work being done in the American Theatre?
Carla: With the ask, we didn’t put any parameters on the kind of work, we just said anything and everything. New work was the only stipulation. THE LIST is what people chose to put out there. But perhaps in the future it’s something where we could nudge nominators to think more broadly.
Annah: I think we only have one play written by more than one author—Deb Stein and Suli Holum collaboration.
Carl: That’s what I noticed, so I was just curious if it felt besides that exception more like a single-author kind of play or not.
Joy: It absolutely does not represent the range of work that’s being done today. Absolutely not. I think we can be explicit in the future—we didn’t think about this for this first round—but I think we can be explicit about the fact that we welcome mixed gender contributions with female authorships. We were really targeting the people we’re reading in interviews saying they can’t find the plays. Those people are big artistic directors in big theatres. One of the things I really love about this field is there is so much range and diversity, so many people working—I saw two really great fringe shows in the last week, and that just speaks to how much great work is being done beyond the big regional theatre level. But production at the big regional level comes with money for writers, which is something I think about a lot; how to survive as an artist. The names of plays at the regional theatre level tend to get out there more—to universities, to smaller theatres—in all of these other ways that a play can have a life, and a playwright can make money. Part of it is really pragmatic. It’s not fair that the most lucrative places for work to be done are so skewed towards men. It really actually hurts the ability of women to have a career with their writing. Ten years in, I’m starting to see some women I was so excited about starting out drop out and drop out in greater numbers than the men I was excited about starting out. Some of the most exciting work that’s being done is not being done at the regional level. It’s not a statement about quality.
Kelly: We actually did talk about that. When we looked at our nominator list, we had a 100, 150, nominators and we thought we had to up that. Who else do we need to reach out to? Places like La MaMa? Places like 3-Legged Dog in New York? People that are working outside of the traditional structure of new play form? So that conversation has begun and will evolve with future lists. We want everyone—all the new play professionals and advocates—to join us in nominating so that the breadth of the style and writers nominated grows, that the advocacy continues to grow, and THE LIST grows with it.
Carl: I’m trying to think about where this particular intervention lives in the landscape. What is the impact of a conversation about parity now? Do theatres look radically different if there is parity on stage? Do audiences look radically different? What’s the impact in your mind of a project like this for the theatre more broadly? I get the impact for more women being employed, I get all the tangibles of that, I wonder what kind of impact are we writing large across the theatre with a movement like this?
Joy: There’s a study of high school students who have studied theatre as an extra curricular activity versus people who do other activities, and one of the things they find is that those students are more likely to be empathetic and less likely to tolerate racism, name calling—things like that. One of the incredible powers we have in our field is the way we can help. When we do work that reflects the community around us, audiences get to walk in the shoes of people that are unlike them. There is a bigger level of understanding to experiences that are not your own. I think it is so necessary for civic conversation in a democracy, and I also think it has a political impact. The way that we see women is partially shaped by the stories we see about them. The way we see trans and gender-queer people is partially shaped by the stories we see about them. There is power in seeing yourself reflected in a story. It’s very validating. I think it’s necessary that we have women, and trans and gender-queer perspectives reflected on our stages. Just in order to make ourselves a better society, a better democracy.
Carl: This has been a crazy fun exciting week. It feels like in three or four days you’ve moved the needle forward in conversation. What’s next for you guys? What are you talking about? What else do you feel like the Kilroys want to do moving forward?
Carla: One thing we talked about is we want to be a very nimble group, to be able to create quick but subversive action we could do well, so we’re still discussing what the next thing might be.
Carl: Do you think it’s going to be an LA-based thing? Do you think there will be potential Kilroys in other cities?
Annah: We hope so. We’re so inspired by the 13P model, and we would love it if there were Kilroy groups that popped up in every city in the country.
Carl: Is there something I didn’t ask? Something you want to say?
Kelly: There’s something I want to say, and I’m going to think through it out loud—the groundswell, and the outpouring and the response has been overwhelming and incredible. It has helped to move that needle, and I think we all want to thank everyone who has been a part of it. Nominators, playwrights, organizations. For us, what it comes down to is, and we’ve said this word a few times—advocacy. And the groundswell of the advocacy we’ve seen in the last two or three days is not only national or institutional or from a certain group of industry professionals. It is personal. It is one to one. We have playwrights speaking up for other writers. We have playwrights emailing entire groups of literary managers and artistic directors saying, “hey, you know that list? Well, here are four plays I loved on that list, and here are ten other plays you need to know that are going to be on the list next year.” Or it’s not about the list. The point is making sure everybody is amplifying advocacy both on an institutional level and in a personal, daily, direct way. We all have the power to advocate for these phenomenal female and female-identifying authors. And to literally move them forward to production. None of us should wait for anyone. We shouldn’t wait for that next list. That advocacy begins with us and ripples out. I just wanted to add that, because for me, for us, one of the most profound gifts this week is the amplification of that personal, individual, and collective advocacy.
Joy: One of the things we’ve talked about is how what we’re doing is really standing on the shoulders of the work of so many others. Part of why the list has had the reach it has is because of all the work that so many people have done that came before. Elissa Goetschius standing up at the Summit and reeling off that list of stats that was pulled together by those artists in DC. Ilana Brownstein storifying it so it got out to everyone. The LA Female Playwrights Initiative, who created these great stats. The Lily Award. Theresa Rebeck. The We Exist List. The “yeah I said feminist” salon in the Bay Area, and the associated counting project spearheaded by Valerie Weak.
Joy: Just two other points. Last night we tallied up what all of us have spent so we could reimburse what needs reimbursing. Between all thirteen of us, we spent less than $200. We planned it and put a lot of time on it, for—just under a year. We met so often and spent so many hours. We felt impatient a lot of times, like we wanted to pull the trigger right after the Summit. But we wanted to make sure that when we launched it, it would have the greatest impact possible. All that to say, I think anyone can do this. Anybody who feels a calling to do something on this issue. I’m so heartbroken by all the people who felt hurt and excluded, because it’s really the opposite of what we wanted. Not only are we going to try and do better next year, but I want to encourage people to turn any feelings of exclusion into action and get together with your own people, and choose your own action that will add to the conversation. The other shoulders we’re standing upon are all the other artists who have come before us, and who have been inspirations and mentors, people whose work we fell in love with, who made us want to go into this field and choose this calling. One of the most amazing things that happened in the course of this project is that we contacted Zakiyyah Alexander, one of the playwrights who was nominated, who emailed Adrienne Kennedy. We’ve had this amazing dialogue with Adrienne Kennedy, with Paula Vogel, with Beth Henley, Timberlake Wertenbaker, all of these playwrights who are so talented, who are inspirations to us, who have talked about the struggles that they endured. Reading these emails, it just stopped my heart for a second when I thought about all the people we aren’t hearing from, all of the people whose names never got out there, and the waste. The generations of talent. The frustration. The heartbreak of that. It’s overwhelming. When I think of that happening to this generation of playwrights, who I love, who I’m so inspired by, it just can’t happen. It cannot happen. It is unendurable. It’s gotta stop.